A year in the life of a PhD student

2013.phd-dreamsToday marks one calendar year since I matriculated as a research student at Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Computing. At the time, I was filled with excitement and a bit of trepidation.

I went into the process with the notion that most of my first year would be spent reading, reading, and writing. I also went into it knowing that there would be training and learning opportunities. And, as I often do, I went into it knowing that there would be moments when I wondered if I was good enough.

There have been some definite highs in the last year. But unfortunately, there have been a few self-inflicted lows because of the aforementioned self-esteem issues.

The lows can be summed up as this: Literature review!

The highs, however, need a bit more space. So how about a list? (I do love a good list!)

In the last year:

» I started a fabulous new PhD blog;
» I gave a presentation to the entire faculty;
» I presented two posters (and made an awesome poster tube!);
» I attended some great conferences;
» I gave my first public presentation;
» I attended some fabulous events;
» And, of course, I submitted my one-year review materials.

Now that I’m heading into my second year, I can honestly say that I am filled with excitement and a bit of trepidation once again. I am hoping that I’ll have more opportunities to present my research, and I’m hoping to get at least one (hopefully two!) publications in the next year.

I don’t know exactly what Year Two will look like yet, but I will try to post a bit more about the process. My hope is that over the next year this blog will develop into three general categories: My academic journey; my views and opinions on my research area; and my take on student life, from living on a budget to balancing studies and socialisation.

So pleased stick around!

How not to write a literature review: Part 1

2014.11.07.not-lit-reviewWhen I began my PhD studies nearly a year ago, I did so knowing that the first year would be, essentially, writing a literature review. I was told over and over again that it was all about reading, reading, reading, and writing.

Everyone I spoke to assured me that I would feel lost and confused. I was told to expect to feel like a failure; to expect to doubt myself. I was told that I would be reading more than ever before—and that some of the reading would be a waste of time.

Keep reading. Keep reading. Keep reading.

Those words echoed in my mind over the first eight or nine months.

But then—all of the sudden—I realised I wasn’t doing enough writing! In fact, I was doing very little writing.

Why? Because I didn’t know how.

I had done so much reading that all of the ideas were running wild in my head. I couldn’t corral them; I couldn’t control them.

When I attempted to express my ideas on paper, I felt that I wasn’t “good enough” to critique the works of others. I felt that I wasn’t clever enough to put my words and my opinions into the mix.

Eventually, I found a bit of confidence to start writing but it was a challenge. There were so many thoughts in my head—so many references to reflect on—that it was overwhelming. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to organise my thoughts.

Soon, the overwhelming feelings morphed into fear which morphed into serious self-doubt—which only made the writing more challenging.

But I needed to write. So I did. I just wrote and wrote and soon I had 6,000 words. But the structure was confusing and there were lots of repeated ideas. Still, I kept writing. And eventually, there were more than 10,000 words. But the structure was still too confusing and there were still too many repeated thoughts.

The solution? Stop writing!

Yes, by that point the document was so confusing that I needed to start from scratch. I needed to build a new structure and start from there.

With the help of one of my supervisors, a new structure was determined. And then I started my word count over at zero. Oh, what a sad day that was!

With the new structure decided, I opened up a fresh document and began moving text across from the old one. I moved it bit-by-bit, starting from the top of the new document, working my way down. By the end of the first day, I was back up to 3,700 words. And by the end of the first week, I was up to 6,000.

But the words were better quality; the words flowed better and actually made sense.

Eventually, I found myself with a literature review of nearly 12,000 words, which has formed part of a larger annual review report of nearly 17,000 words (that’s 68 pages if you wondered).

I’ve sent the annual review report off to my advisory panel and now I have a week and a half to wait and wring my fingers whilst I stress and panic that it won’t be good enough.

And I will stress. Every single day. Because I am now so convinced that my literature review is absolutely horrible and there’s no way I’ll pass my annual review.

But just in case I’m wrong, I will continue to reflect on the document so that I can improve upon it for my main PhD thesis.

Of course, if I could start all over, I know what I’d do differently. And I’m going to try to remember those lessons when it comes time to start on my methods chapter (up next!).

So what’s my advice to someone starting out today? That’s easy: Start today!

Start putting your thoughts on paper immediately. They might be wrong; they might be conveyed in a casual or even half-baked manner; they might get deleted later. It doesn’t matter. Write! And write right now!

Why? Because you’ll get your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or a computer screen). Because you’ll have something to show your supervisors, who can help guide you in the right direction. Because you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment. Because you’ll have something to look back on later, showing how far you’ve come from Day One!

In between now and my annual review meeting later this month, I will be taking some time to read more about research methods for my investigation. But I’ll be reading with my pen and pad handy so that I can write as I read.

As you can tell, I’m running a little massively short on self-esteem just now. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some positive outcomes soon though!

A Woman of STEM!

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

Tuesday was Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and as part of the celebration, I attended a dinner hosted by Equate Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University.

[Note: Click here to skip the personal epiphany stuff and go straight to the event recap.]

My personal celebration of women in STEM began earlier than that, however. In fact, it began when I woke up and saw the reminder on my phone. That was when it finally dawned on me that I am a “Woman in STEM”.

As I thought about my place within the STEM community, I realised that I am a poor advocate for the group. Not because I don’t believe that women are (more than) capable of excelling in STEM subjects, but because I have never truly considered myself a part of the community. My lack of connection with the community stems (pun slightly intended) from my background in the humanities, media, and culture, but also from my fringe status within the field of technology.

You see, I am nearly a year into my PhD within Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing, but I have struggled to think of myself as a “computer person” because I am investigating online reputation management—not computers. I suppose I can’t help but feel that my studies are about media, communications, and society, rather than computer-based.

Slowly but surely, however, I’ve been breaking through the (self-imposed) barriers and have been feeling more and more comfortable with the thought of being lumped with the computer scientists and technology folks—even though I still feel better connected to the fields of media and communications studies.

But I can find comfort in more than one place, right? After all, as a long-term expat, I feel just as comfortable identifying with my home nation of America as I do with my adopted home of Scotland. And if I can (eventually) have dual nationalities, why can’t I have dual academic disciplines?

So, yes. I am a Woman in STEM. (Actually, I am a Multi-Disciplinary Woman. Which is empowering in its own right.)

By the time I arrived at the dinner, I was feeling more comfortable than ever with my place within STEM. And as I began to chat with the other guests, I realised more and more that we’re all from diverse backgrounds—some that are directly related to STEM subjects; some that are not.

And then when the speakers began to take the stage, I knew—without a doubt—that I was in the right place.

I digress…

The evening’s programme began with an address from Edinburgh Napier University’s principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Andrea Nolan (OBE), who spoke about the changing climate for women in STEM within the university—including the high number of female staff in the School of Computing.

Professor Hazel Hall
Professor Hazel Hall

Professor Hazel Hall then spoke about the university’s Athena SWAN bronze submission and the overall environment within Edinburgh Napier’s STEM subjects. She was rightfully pleased to point out that 21% of the university’s STEM professoriate is female—which bucks the trend of the UK’s benchmark of 16.5%. On the other hand, she noted that women are still under-represented on some important committees.

However, in keeping with the positive theme of the evening, we were reminded that there are mechanisms in place to help improve opportunities for not only women staff, but for current and future women students in STEM.

Linda Somerville, director of Equate Scotland, spoke next about the overall outlook for women in STEM. She shared some rather disappointing statistics, such as a recent survey by Prospect of over 2,000 women in science, engineering, and technical roles that showed 30% of women felt their careers had been hindered by their gender—a percentage that increased with age, as nearly 40% of women over 50 felt that way.

Happily though, Linda pointed out that Equate Scotland has been giving direct support to women over the years—the impact of which has shown 83% of women assisted feel more confident about their careers and 24% have obtained new jobs.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The evening ended with a keynote address by Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who shared her personal journey from her time as a child in Northern Ireland, through her university studies at the University of Glasgow and the University of Cambridge, and her fascinating and varied professional life that included the discovery of pulsars.

Dame Jocelyn’s frank discussions of the harassment she endured during her studies and her feelings of imposter syndrome seemed to resonate with the audience—as did her experience as a “trailing spouse” whose career came second to that of her husband’s and to the demands of motherhood.

Keeping with the evening’s positive theme, however, Dame Jocelyn points out that her “succession of jobs, rather than a career” provided her with great opportunities in a number of fields—and helped her to develop an impressive career in the end.

There were three things Dame Jocelyn said that I felt really made the day a success:

  • It takes a long time to change society and society’s perceptions.
  • It’s OK to celebrate the differences between women and men.
  • We need to re-write women into history!

I hope that others in attendance found the evening as uplifting and positive as I did. It truly was a great celebration of Women in STEM and I’m looking forward to seeing the momentum continue.

Back to my own personal epiphany, I’ll share with you the thoughts I had on my walk home after the celebration.

Like many things, changing perceptions, norms, and attitudes takes time. But we are changing them. Step by step, little by little. Ada Lovelace made a difference. Dame Jocelyn made (and continues to make) a difference. Women and men like you are making a difference. I am making a difference.

The things we do today—the societal norms and expectations we challenge today—will impact the women and men who follow after us. I am excited about my role in creating a better tomorrow!

Happy (belated) Ada Lovelace Day!

[Watercolour portrait of Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Ada Lovelace), by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860). Image in public domain, accessed from Wikimedia Commons. Photographs of Professor Hazel Hall and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell copyright Frances Ryan, 2014]

Life in a digital fishbowl

2014.08.18.skeptics-talkI gave my first full-on public talk last night and am pretty excited about how it went. The talk, titled “Life in a digital fishbowl: Managing your reputation online”, was part of the 2014 Skeptics on the Fringe line up in the Edinburgh Fringe and was given to a nearly full house. (Thankfully, it was a rather small venue so wasn’t too nerve-racking!)

I was very excited to have been invited to speak and spent the last couple of months slightly anxious about how it would go. After all, this was the first time I’ve done something like this. Though whilst I felt rather awkward the whole time, I’ve been told by others that I didn’t seem nervous at all. (So either I’m going to be a great public speaker one day, or I’ve been told some kind tales to fluff my ego. Or both!)

I broke my talk into three sections: An introduction to my background and my research; some further insights and examples into issues of reputation, identity, and information; and a bit of homework in the form of some tips and tricks for monitoring and managing online information.

I tried to make it a bit relevant, though I’m sure I may have lost or confused one or two people, as I didn’t really know the best way to piece the different bits of information together. The key takeaway was that there is more information online than you might realise, and that you are not necessarily in control over it! (Not in a completely scary way.)

I had a couple of supportive friends and PhD supervisors in the audience to lob (easy!) questions to me if no one else asked any. But—thankfully!—the audience seemed more than interested in asking questions of their own.

Overall, the experience was a great opportunity for me to think about how my research fits within my own field as well as society as a whole. Importantly, it was also a great opportunity for me to gain a bit of confidence. (Something I feel I’m lacking at this point in my research career.)

It also gave me the confidence to state my opinions on issues of online reputation management, so I will try to share some of them here with you.

Below are the slides from my presentation. There isn’t too much text, so they won’t really help to give an overview of the talk. But if you have any questions, feel free to contact me!

(See write-ups from the Edinburgh Skeptics here or my supervisor, Professor Hazel Hall, here.)

[Photo Copyright Professor Hazel Hall]